How MTV is using digital media and youth engagement to create change

If  you were one of the millions of people who downloaded the game Angry Birds Space a few days ago, you might have run across this unique clip…

As someone who has been playing video games and watching MTV his entire life, this unique partnership struck me as extremely curious. Why did MTV, the pop culture television icon and Angry Birds, the predominant, casual gaming juggernaut, partner up? But more specifically, why did they partner up to combat a major social issue like cyberbullying?

Compelled to find an answer, I spoke via email with MTV’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Jason Rzepka, to learn more….

1) When did MTV begin creating content around pro-social issues directed towards teens?

From the very beginning, MTV has worshipped at the altar of our audience – including both teens and young adults – and as part of that, we’ve always been committed to empowering young people to have an impact on the biggest challenges they face as a generation. This goes all the way back to the early 80s, when we were the first network in the world to air safe sex PSAs, debuting “We Are the World,” being the only network to carry “Live Aid” in its entirety and so forth.

There was a shift in 1997 when Stephen Friedman, who is now the President of MTV, was hired to found the public affairs department at MTV and begin developing strategic public affairs campaigns. I and my team are proud to carry that legacy forward, and the campaigns we’re running now run the gamut from sexual health to cyberbullying, human trafficking to youth voter registration, and suicide prevention to promoting vanguard visual art.

2) How does MTV bridge the gap from being an entertainment network
to an agent of change?

Promotional image from MTV’s “A Thin Line” campaign”
We have a responsibility to reflect the totality of youth culture. That includes music, entertainment programming and initiatives that help young people have an impact on the big challenges that they face. This is very much in line with how young people live their lives – they can stay out late partying on Saturday night, then wake up early on Sunday to volunteer or go to church.

3) In the recent years, I’ve noticed MTV’s campaigns focus on digital and social media. Why has that become such an important vehicle to promote social change?

The reality is that young people today live their lives online and on digital platforms. Those platforms represent powerful avenues for us to connect with our audience, inform them, amplify their voices and empower them. When building our campaigns, we work to capitalize on every possible opportunity to advance the issue — from bringing issues to life on MTV, on, through MTV’s huge social footprint, and all across the social web.

4) How and why did the partnership with Rovio (the creators of Angry Birds) and “A Thin Line” come about?

Still image from MTV and Rovio’s promotional video for their Angry Birds partnership
The impetus for this partnership was us recognizing that people spend 300 million minutes a day playing Angry Birds. When we saw that really astounding statistic, we felt that there had to be an opportunity to use the Angry Birds for good.  We wanted to find a way to connect with the passionate fans of this game – many of which are young people — and to translate their interest in Angry Birds to addressing challenges our audience faces. We felt there was an opportunity to have fun while doing good.

Thankfully, Rovio really liked the idea and saw a natural fit to working with us on our A Thin Line campaign, which addresses the issues of digital abuse and cyberbullying.  We’re proud to have partnered with Rovio on Angry Birds’ first youth activism effort, and we’ve been very encouraged by the early response to the campaign.

5) The “Darfur Digital Activist Contest” spawned one of the most popular, and early examples of games for change with “Darfur is Dying“. At the time, making games, let alone interactive media, to support social good campaigns was rare. With the proliferation of smart phones, games like Angry Birds, and the growing adoption of “games for change” as a genre, will we see MTV supporting new campaigns or new games for change?

The answer is absolutely yes. We’ve now created several games for change connected to various campaigns, including Sudan, the financial crisis of 2008, and sexual health/HIV. We will be pioneering a brand-new way to use gaming to drive civic engagement connected to this year’s elections. The name of our new game is “Fantasy Election.” We’re going to put a game layer on top of this year’s elections and experiment with using game mechanics to encourage candidates to be more honest, transparent and civil, and to incentivize our audience to be more informed, engaged, and active within Election ’12.


To learn more about MTV and Rovio’s partnership, visit the Angry Birds page on MTV’s A Thin Line campaign website.


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